Rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, especially in veterans, have been rapidly increasing from around 33,000 veterans on the U.S Department of Veterans’ Affairs’ disability rolls in 1990 to more than 650,000 in 2013. With so many cases, treatment of the disorder should be a top priority for medical researchers. However, breakthroughs in treatment of the disorder have increased at a snail’s pace compared to the explosion in the number of reported cases.
Currently accepted methods of treatment like cognitive-behavioral therapy and SSRI’s work in about 20% more cases than placebo, with only about 30% of cases reaching full remission of symptoms. These numbers are, to be blunt, abysmal. These “cases” are more than just statistics–they’re people,with loved ones, families, jobs. But their disease makes it nearly impossible to live a fulfilling life. New treatments are few and far between. What happens to the 70% that don’t get the luxury of effective treatment? They struggle with flashbacks, depression, and thoughts of suicide. How can a person go through this and lead a normal life?
For those that aren’t helped through conventional methods, there’s a new treatment that could give them the relief they need, MDMA therapy. Commonly known as Ecstasy, it offers safe, effective, long-term relief even in cases that haven’t responded to other treatments. So why isn’t it being talked about?
Although current studies of MDMA are in the early stages, using relatively small sample sizes, some have reported remission rates as high as 83%, compared to 25% with placebo (Oehen et al., 2010). During post-study checkups, MDMA treatment groups maintained lower self-reported symptoms in all cases. All participants in the study were chosen based on the fact that their PTSD had been unresponsive to therapy and SSRI’s.
A major concern for advocates of MDMA treatment are the possible health effects associated with the drug. In high doses, MDMA overdose can be fatal, and its use in clubs can lead to severe dehydration. However, when used in controlled environments in low doses, as it is when used in the treatment of PTSD, no adverse health effects have been reported. Studies have, in fact, found it to be far safer than many SSRI’s, especially as its use is limited to up to three doses over the course of months, compared to multiple times a day for years in the case of SSRI’s (Mithoefer et al., 2011). At therapeutic doses, roughly half of a recreational dose, none of the side effects commonly reported by recreational users (rapid heartbeat, dehydration, nausea, sweating) are present. In fact, many side effects of the drug are exacerbated, if not caused, by its improper use, leading to dehydration, fever, and other serious health issues.
Those in opposition to MDMA use in any application, whether medical or otherwise, rely heavily on anecdotal, misleading, and sometimes outrightly false information. According to an online informational pamphlet from drugfreeworld.org, “even a small amount of Ecstasy can be toxic enough to poison the nervous system and cause irreparable damage.” The pamphlet, however, lists no sources. So is their information even true? As it turns out, no. The most common way to determine the danger of drugs is using the LD50, or the dose that kills half of test animals (usually mice, as they metabolize drugs in an almost identical way to humans). The LD50 of MDMA is roughly 100 mg/kg (milligrams of drug per kilogram of body weight), meaning that an average person weighing 150 lbs, or 68 kg would need to take over 6 grams to be in danger from the drug itself. This is over 100 times the standard dose used for medical purposes. MDMA treatment has been administered to over 750 human subjects for the purpose of treating PTSD with only one serious adverse reaction reported. Clearly, with responsible medical use, MDMA can hardly be considered “extremely dangerous” or “deadly” as described in drugfreeworld’s “informational” pamphlet.
But where does it end? What about cocaine, heroin, or even meth? If we allow MDMA to be used medicinally, what’s to stop someone from making a case to use even worse drugs under the guise of medicine? The truth is, all three of those drugs are currently used as medical treatments. Cocaine hydrochloride is used as an oral anaesthetic because of its unique ability to numb areas — it belongs to the same molecular family as novocaine — as well as being able to stop bleeding by constricting blood vessels. Heroin, also known as diacetylmorphine, is used in the United Kingdom as a powerful pain reliever, especially as a way to relieve the suffering of terminal cancer patients. Its “chemical cousin” morphine is used regularly in the United States both as a pain reliever and as treatment for chronic shortness of breath from pulmonary edema — a buildup of fluid in the lungs– or certain cancers. Even meth, arguably one of the most addictive and dangerous drugs ever developed, is used for medical purposes. Methamphetamine hydrochloride, prescribed under the brand name Desoxyn, is used to treat attention deficit disorder, severe narcolepsy, and chronic obesity. If these drugs can be used safely in a medical setting, why is it so hard to garner support to use MDMA to treat those suffering from post-traumatic stress?
One factor that could be hindering the acceptance of MDMA as a treatment may be the fact that unlike cocaine, heroin, and meth, the symptoms it treats are strictly psychological. It’s easier to justify those treatments for disorders or injuries that are visible. A broken leg can get morphine to reduce the pain, someone who needs stitches can get cocaine to numb and stop bleeding, but when the disease is psychological, it’s easier to dismiss. It’s easier to say that someone just needs to “get over it” or “just be happy.” Mental disorders are often trivialized in a way that physical ones can’t be. PTSD can completely destroy the life of a person suffering from it. Those whose conditions can’t be helped by traditional methods have no place to turn. Denying someone a treatment that could possibly help them regain control of their life is not only senseless, but cruel. If there is a way to cure a disease in a way not available before, there is a moral and ethical imperative to at least research its possible uses.
For more information about this topic, visit MAPS, the multidisciplinary association for psychedelic studies.
Bousoa, José C. “MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy Using Low Doses in a Small Sample of Women with Chronic Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.” Taylor & Francis. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2014.
Mithoefer, Michael C. “The Safety and Efficacy of ±3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine-assisted Psychotherapy in Subjects with Chronic, Treatment-resistant Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: The First Randomized Controlled Pilot Study.” The Safety and Efficacy of ±3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine-assisted Psychotherapy in Subjects with Chronic, Treatment-resistant Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: The First Randomized Controlled Pilot Study. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2014
Oehen, Peter. “A Randomized, Controlled Pilot Study of MDMA (±3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine)-assisted Psychotherapy for Treatment of Resistant, Chronic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).” A Randomized, Controlled Pilot Study of MDMA (±3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine)-assisted Psychotherapy for Treatment of Resistant, Chronic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2014.
“Desoxyn (Methamphetamine Hydrochloride) Drug Information: Description, User Reviews, Drug Side Effects, Interactions – Prescribing Information at RxList.” RxList. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.
“Negative Effects of Ecstasy – MDMA Overdose & Death – Drug-Free World.”Negative Effects of Ecstasy – MDMA Overdose & Death – Drug-Free World. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.
“Treating PTSD with MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy – Home.” Treating PTSD with MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy – Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.